On October 1, immigration judges around the country will arrive at work and face a daunting new task; complete 700 removal cases in the next year or risk official sanction. The new court quotas and performance metrics were imposed as part of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ ongoing push to reduce immigration court backlogs. Immigrant advocates and the National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ), the union representing immigration judges, have called the quotas an attack on judicial independence and warn that they pose a serious risk to the due process rights of immigrants facing deportation.
For the past two decades, immigration judges, who are employees of the Department of Justice (DOJ), have been exempt from performance-review based quotas. However, last year the Executive Office for Immigration Review (the DOJ office that manages the immigration court system) announced a plan to impose sweeping new mandates with the goal of speeding up removal proceedings. Many advocates expressed concern that the quotas would create “assembly-line justice,” forcing immigration judges to choose between keeping their own jobs or allotting the time needed to afford noncitizens a fair day in immigration court.
Under the new quota system, immigration judges will be required to “complete” 700 cases each year, either by ordering immigrants deported, terminating proceedings, or granting relief. If a judge fails to complete 700 cases in a year, they face negative performance reviews, which may limit their access to promotions and better benefits and could lead to termination of employment if the judge receives repeated negative reviews.
In addition to the quotas, immigration judges will be subject to other new performance metrics, including requirements to issue at least 85 percent of decisions on legal motions within 20 days and 85 percent of final decisions on an immigrant’s case within 10 days of a hearing. Judges will also be subject to penalties if their decisions are overturned by the Board of Immigration Appeals in more than 15 percent of cases.
Because the quotas will likely put pressure on immigration judges to expedite hearings and issue decisions without sufficient time to consider all the issues, the NAIJ has called the performance metrics a “death knell for judicial independence.” Other groups have raised similar concerns, including the New York City Bar Association, which called the quotas “neither efficient nor just.”
In response to all of these attacks on judicial independence, many are calling on Congress to protect immigration judges by creating an independent Article I immigration court, similar to the U.S. Tax Court. Under those reforms, judges would no longer be career DOJ employees and would be further insulated from political pressures.
Indeed, the new quotas begin only weeks after Sessions issued a binding decision that limited the authority of immigration judges to terminate proceedings, which led NAIJ president Ashley Tabaddor to accuse the Attorney General of improperly treating immigration courts as a law enforcement agency.
Despite Sessions’ repeated heavy-handed micromanagement of the immigration courts, the backlog of immigration court cases has grown under the Trump administration at its fastest rate ever. The number of cases pending in immigration court has grown from 543,000 cases at the start of 2017 to 764,000 cases through August 2018. At the current rate of growth, the backlog is slated to double by the end of Trump’s first term.